Germany in Europe – From Vanguard to Laggard and Back Again?

Commenting on German foreign policy is hampered by the fact that this is a moving target,[1] today more so than ever,  To complicate things further, the target not only moves quickly, it also changes direction in an apparently erratic manner. Accordingly, Germany has been making global headlines as a general source of befuddlement. The question seems obvious: “Where does Germany stand on all of this?”—with “all of this” referring to the distinct impression that, from the political and economic turmoil in the EU to the contentious abstention from the UN Security Council vote on Libya, there is no shortage of problems waiting to be tackled. At the risk of overstretching the metaphor, it seems safe to say that while Germany is not standing at all, it is also fundamentally unclear where it is heading. Predictions, generally risky business in the social sciences, would be particularly futile in light of a situation that appears to be genuinely open in both historical and political terms.

What we can do, however, is to strive toward a better understanding of the current situation not only in order to better understand how we got here, but also in order to get a sense of plausible futures in light of current controversies. To this end, I will first give a brief account of what has changed in German foreign policy. Contrary to a larger part of the academic literature I do not start from the question of whether German foreign policy since the end of the Cold War should be characterized in terms of either continuity or change. I rather treat foreign policy change as a perfectly normal condition thus focusing on the question of how German foreign policy has changed. The general pattern, I contend, is one of gradual, incremental de-Europeanization amounting to a shift from the ideal of a European Germany to the idea of a more German Europe.[2]

Second, I will make the case that both recent changes and plausible futures can best be understood in terms of a dynamic of generational change. Across a broad variety of policy fields we cannot observe a clear party cleavage or any particular clash of different ideologies or interest groups. What we can observe, however, is a generational shift. With the red-green coalition of Social Democrats and Greens elected into office in 1998 for the first time, all key positions in public office were occupied by individuals with no personal memory of the Second World War. In Germany’s equivalent to an “only Nixon could go to China moment,” and contrary to what party-political arithmetic may have us expect, it was the red-green coalition under Gerhard Schröder that broke decisively with the taboo over German military involvement in out-of-area missions.

Lessons Unlearned? Generational Change in German Foreign Policy

More recently, a similar logic of generational change has become particularly apparent in an episode that had assumed center stage in German foreign policy prior to Libya and the euro, namely Germany’s bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Both Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel made it a key project of their foreign policy agendas, both Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl rejected the idea as entirely futile. Even more important than the distribution of positions across a generational divide, however, are the arguments presented in justification for the respective positions. Those in favor of a permanent seat characteristically begin with the first person plural: We are ready to bear more responsibility; we are the third-largest financial contributor. Those skeptical of the project characteristically start from the point of view of the institutional consequences a permanent seat for Germany might entail. Proposals to reform the UN Security Council are typically motivated by the observation that it fails to adequately reflect how configurations of power have changed since the end of  the Second World War.  From the point of view of institutional reform, adding yet another  Western European highly industrialized nation seems far from conclusive. Moreover, the European ambition to work toward a joint seat (which used to be a German ambition as well) seems hardly compatible with a German bid, presenting France and Great Britain with an opportunity to reaffirm their own special privileges.[3] What has changed is not merely the substantive preference, but also the fundamental mode of interaction. Rather than always taking into account the consequences of institutional embeddedness, Germany has come to define its position in more self-centered terms. The question of interest here is not one of justification, i.e., whether this is legitimate, whether other states are doing the same thing, etc. What is of interest is the observation that a more assertive posture only defines them in the context of a more narrow timeframe.

The exact same tendency to pit Germany against its institutional environment can be observed in the process of European integration. The current crisis may exemplify this most clearly; the story, however, begins much earlier. While the view that Germany “sacrificed” the Deutsch Mark for unification is widely accepted today, the notion of a “necessary bargain” seemed much less plausible from the point of view of the generational experience shared by Schmidt and Kohl. However, the argument that getting the euro on top of unification was indeed a win-win constellation was a hard-sell to a public already increasingly skeptical of further integration. In the negotiations on the Treaty of the European Union at Maastricht, constitutionalizing the stability culture of the Federal Republic thus became a core goal. Central bank independence and a commitment to monetarism as well as the Maastricht criteria designed to ensure the stability of the new currency formed a package, which promised to build a currency union in the image of the Federal Republic.[4] At the same time, Helmut Kohl’s attempts to imbue the project with historical meaning grew increasingly out of touch with public opinion. Over the final years of his sixteen-year tenure as chancellor, the “old man talking about Europe as a peace project” seemed already like a relic of a time long gone.

The politics of the euro, on the other hand, remained very much in focus, and it may serve to illustrate in an ideal-typical manner how Germany’s role has become gradually more assertive. While the institutional export of a German culture of economic stability could still be framed in terms of the common European good, the exemptions claimed when Germany itself got into fiscal trouble in the early 2000s marked a clear shift away from such a European framing. Still, the exemptions from the Maastricht rules were about Germany claiming exemptions for Germany, i.e., the more assertive tone went hand in hand with an increasingly self-centered framing of the problems at hand. In the current crisis, solo acts of this kind come back with a vengeance as they undermine the credibility of Germany again assuming the role of a guardian of fiscal discipline. At the same time, the channels through which a culture of economic stability is to be exported are now less consensual than top-down technocratic in nature. As representatives of all major parties agree that future aid for Greece should be conditional on the Greek doing “their homework,” Germany has implicitly assumed the role of the headmaster administering disciplinary measures against recalcitrant pupils. To the extent, however, that joint fiscal policies, rightfully called for in order to remedy the architectural weaknesses of the eurozone, are introduced in the purely technocratic mode of following through on functional imperatives, they are likely to only lead away from the goal of re-politicizing the project of integration.

A “more German Europe” thus not only constitutes a different goal, it also implies a radically different view of European politics. This becomes particularly apparent in Angela Merkel’s recent call to introduce a “union method” as opposed to the established “community method,” meaning that Germany is now openly embracing intergovernmental forms of coordination in which the relative weight of member states can be brought to bear.[5] At the same time, the more assertive articulation of German versus European interests can be read as at least contributing significantly to the present crisis. George Soros, an undisputed authority on how to exploit political weaknesses in times of economic crisis, dates the origins of the present turmoil to a meeting of European finance ministers following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in November 2008. Never again, the summit agreed, should a financial institution of systemic importance be allowed to fail. This was meant to be the key signal of unity, strength, and determination in order to prevent a contagious sequence of further crises. However, Chancellor Angela Merkel was quick to introduce a caveat. The immense financial burden implied by such a commitment would fall into the responsibility of individual member states. The idea of a “transfer union” having to pay for the debts of others was concurrently framed as a horror scenario to be avoided at all cost. This created a window of opportunity for financial markets, claims Soros, to single out the weakest sheep in the flock and launch speculative attacks against it.[6] This is precisely what happened to Greece, and to that extent, speculative attacks against Greece created successful incentives for financial markets to pick the next-weakest member of the eurozone as a target. Again, rather than newly highlighting power and interest as part of a “normalized” foreign policy, we can observe a myopic neglect of long-term institutional consequences.[7]

As noted above, out-of-area missions remain the most clear-cut example of generational change. While German involvement in Kosovo and Afghanistan was broadly justified in the dual terms of normalization and burden-sharing, the recent turmoil over Libya has added a new and different quality. Again, Germany seems to go it alone. To be sure, contrary to the Cold War experience alliances and allegiances do not automatically go hand in hand any longer. What is important in the present context, however, is not whether Germany has the right to disagree. Of course it does. The question is rather how disagreement and opposition to long-standing partners are being justified. Much more so than in the case of Iraq, where domestic electoral concerns were present yet counter-balanced by a more powerful substantive case against military action, the abstention from the UN Security Council vote on Libya has raised fears of German isolation precisely because a strong, substantive case against participation was hard to discern. Again, Germany appeared to define its stance predominantly with an eye to domestic concerns, ranging from the limited capacities of the Bundeswehr to electoral concerns.[8]  Again, that is, a short-term and increasingly self-centered definition of interests seems to have gained the upper hand.

Re-inventing the Past: The Politics of Generational Change

Without dramatizing any of these individual incidents, one could thus identify a broad tendency where a new generation, lacking first-hand memories of the Second World War, is increasingly willing to strike a more assertive chord and pit German interests against European ones. It would be too easy, however, to “sociologize away” the politics of generational change underlying such transformations.[9] Formative experiences, to use a term coined by sociologist Karl Mannheim, do not translate automatically into habits, routines, and practices. They are, on the contrary, actively forged through re-descriptions, re-interpretations, perhaps even re-inventions of the historical past. To focus on the politics of generational change is thus to take into account that we actively (although at times implicitly) decide what to learn from the past, and what to unlearn. The changing role of the Second World War in historical memory is a case in point. With the Balkan Wars as a turning point, the core lesson taken for granted throughout the Bonn Republic, “Nie wieder Krieg!”—never again shall there be war involving German soldiers, has been replaced by “Nie wieder Auschwitz”—a moral obligation to intervene, if necessary with military force, in order to avert genocide.[10]

As the result of politics of generational change, the newly emerging topos of “Germany versus Europe” has been rendered possible by a similar re-interpretation of the past, fundamentally a re-writing of the experience of the Bonn Republic. To advocates of a more assertive German posture, the Bonn Republic can be characterized as an extended “vacation from history” made possible by the unique constellation of the Cold War through which Germany had presumably unlearned to play the game of power politics.[11] Bearing in mind that Konrad Adenauer spoke of Germany as a potential great power already in the early 1950s, this is more than questionable as a historical account.[12] Politically, however, it is practically effective in that it eases the need to justify the re-assertion of German interests versus European ones. After all, if the experience of the Bonn Republic can be bracketed as a deviation, a “vacation from history,” current changes are but a return to the normal rules of the game—nothing in need of justification. If, however, current changes, while casting themselves as a self-evident “return of history,” merely lead toward a more short-term definition of power and interest, Germany’s politics of generational change appears to rest on a fundamental paradox.. A historical re-interpretation, which justifies itself with references to an ahistorical account of normal foreign policy conduct, becomes instrumental in the process of losing sight of the long term. An increasingly myopic policy justifies itself through references to the eternal. Successfully!

What is more, the presumably ahistorical ground of power politics is in itself subject to historical change. Obviously, power politics in the twenty-first century has assumed new and different forms. In contrast to the historical record of Bismarck and Wilhelm II, present-day forms of power politics seem pleasantly civilized. From the point of view of the politics of generational change, however, it is precisely the apparently unspectacular nature of new forms of assertiveness and power politics that renders them effective in bringing about incremental, yet far-reaching transformations. Analytically, it follows that we are being challenged to devise a more fine-grained tool-kit for the analysis of newly emerging forms of power politics. Politically, that means that we should bear in mind that the image of a return of history and power politics, while it may cast itself as inevitable, is the result of a re-imagination of Germany’s postwar history, which is far from being historically conclusive. To resist the sedimentation of such a narrative of inevitability into taken-for-granted historical memory would mean, at the same time, to open up thinking space for a broader set of plausible futures. Most importantly, this may help to raise the awareness that the re-orientation from the ideal of a European Germany to the idea of a more German Europe entails not only a plain shift of policy preferences, but also a fundamentally different approach to Germany’s politics of European constitutionalization. For to take seriously the idea of democratic constitutionalization in Europe would presuppose that member states, and particularly the most powerful ones, abstain from the temptation to lock in their national status quo at the European level. In any case, focusing more carefully on the politics of generational change may help us to better understand the choices involved.


[1] Research for this essay was conducted through my tenure as a DAAD/AICGS fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies. I would like to thank the DAAD and AICGS for the generous funding, AICGS staff for providing me with excellent working conditions and an enticing intellectual atmosphere, and the participants of a seminar held at AICGS on October 20, 2011, in particular Stephen Szabo, for instructive comments and criticism.

[2] For more extensive analyses along these lines, see Rainer Baumann, Der Wandel des deutschen Multilateralismus. Eine diskursanalytische Untersuchung deutscher Außenpolitik (Baden-Baden, 2006); Ulrich Roos, Deutsche Außenpolitik: Eine Rekonstruktion der grundlegenden Handlungsregeln (Wiesbaden, 2010); and Gunther Hellmann, Christian Weber, Frank Sauer, Sonja Schirmbeck “‘Selbstbewusst’ und ‘stolz’. Das außenpolitische Vokabular der Berliner Republik als Fährte einer Neuorientierung,” in Politische Vierteljahresschrift 48, 4 (2007): 650–679.

[3] For a detailed analysis see Ulrich Roos, Ulrich Franke, and Gunther Hellmann, “Beyond the Deadlock: How Europe Can Contribute to UN Reform,” in The International Spectator, 43 (2008), 1, pp. 43-55, as well as Gunther Hellmann, Ulrich Roos, “Das deutsche Streben nach einem ständigen Sitz im UN-Sicherheitsrat. Analyse eines Irrwegs und Skizzen eines Auswegs,” INEF-Report 92/2007.

[4] The power dimension of Germany’s European currency policy is now analyzed in great detail in Beverly Crawford, Power and German Foreign Policy: Embedded Hegemony in Europe (Houndmills, Basingstoke, 2007), 103-142.

[5] See “Rede von Bundeskanzlerin Merkel anlässlich der Eröffnung des 61. akademischen Jahres des Europakollegs Brügge,” Bruges, 2 November, 2010, <http://www.bundesregierung.de/Content/DE/Rede/2010/11/2010-11-02-merkel-bruegge.html>, as well as “Rede von Bundeskanzlerin Merkel bei der Veranstaltung ‘Die Europa-Rede’”, Berlin, 9 November 2010, <http://www.bundeskanzlerin.de./Content/DE/Rede/2010/11/2010-11-09-merkel-europarede.html>.

[6] George Soros, “Does the Euro Have a Future?” The New York Review of Books, 13 October 2011, <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/oct/13/does-euro-have-future/>.  

[7] Similar patterns can be observed also in the fields of European Security and Defense Policy and Asylum and Refugee Policy. See Gunther Hellmann, Rainer Baumann, Monika Bösche, Benjamin Herborth, and Wolfgang Wagner, “De-Europeanization by Default,” in Foreign Policy Analysis 1 (2005) 1, pp. 143-164.

[8] Cf. Christoph Bertram, “Deutsche Außenpolitik ist fahrlässig,” in Die Zeit, June 17, 2011, http://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2011-06/bundesregierung-aussenpolitik-libyen, for a critical view on an increased self-centeredness see also Christos Katsioulis, “Die deutsche Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik nach der Intervention in Libyen,” in Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft 4/2011, 27-44.

[9] For an extended version of this argument see Benjamin Herborth, “Towards a Sociology of Generational Change: Generational Experience and Generational Performance in German Foreign Policy,” in Theory and Application of the Generation in International Relations and Politics, ed. Brent Steele and Jonathan Acuff (Basingstoke, Houndmills, 2011).

[10]  Michael Schwab-Trapp, Die politische Kultur des Krieges im Wandel, 1991-1999 (Opladen, 2002).

[11] See, for instance, Hans-Peter Schwarz, Die gezähmten Deutschen. Von der Machtbesessenheit zur Machtvergessenheit (Stuttgart, 1985); idem, Republik ohne Kompass. Anmerkungen zur deutschen Außenpolitik (Berlin, 2005); Gregor Schöllgen, Der Auftritt. Deutschlands Rückkehr auf die Weltbühne (Berlin, 2004); Eric Gujer, Schluss mit der Heuchelei: Deutschland ist eine Großmacht (Hamburg, 2007).

[12] “Eine Großmacht werden,” in Der Spiegel, 20 June 1951.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Benjamin Herborth

University of Groningen

Benjamin Herborth was a DAAD fellow at AICGS in 2011. He has worked and taught at the universities of Frankfurt, Munich, and Erfurt, and recently completed a project on transatlantic security relations and “the West” funded by the Cluster of Excellence “The Formation of Normative Orders” at Goethe University Frankfurt. Following his fellowship at AICGS, Mr. Herborth will join the University of Groningen as an Assistant Professor of Political Science.

He has published broadly on the theoretical and methodological problems in International Relations, recent developments in security studies, and German foreign policy in Europe. During his DAAD/AICGS fellowship in September and October 2011, Mr. Herborth will focus on how Germany has gradually lost its vanguard role in the process of European integration. In particular, he will look into the interrelations between generational change, changing interpretations of Germany’s violent past, and the EU’s loss of normative appeal in the eyes of both a new generation of foreign policy decision-makers and the broader public.